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HST Blog

Jul 05
Mental Illness in Children

​by Siyabonga Gema (Communications Officer)

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Mental illness is difficult to handle for most people, especially for families with children who have been diagnosed with mental health conditions. The stigma associated with mental illness, coupled with a lack of knowledge poses major obstacles in dealing with the scourge of mental illness. For parents, it can be hard to come to terms with the fact that their child has a mental health condition, making it more challenging for the child to access the right care and support. This is why initiatives such as Mental Illness Awareness Month, celebrated every July, are vital in raising awareness and educating the public.

Mental health is the overall wellness of how you think, manage your feelings and behave. A mental illness may also be called a mental health disorder. It is patterns or changes in thinking, feeling or behaving that cause distress or get in the way of being able to act. Mental disorders among children are described as serious changes in the way children typically learn, behave, or handle their emotions, which cause distress and problems getting through the day. Many children occasionally experience fears and worries or display disruptive behaviours. If symptoms are serious and persistent and interfere with school, home, or play, the child may be diagnosed with a mental disorder.

Children often experience mild mental illnesses, but they can also be exceedingly serious. A third of children and teenagers will at some point in their lives encounter a mental illness, making up about 25% of cases in any given year. The most common childhood mental disorders are anxiety disorders, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Other common types of mental illnesses in childhood include substance-use disorders like alcohol use disorders. It is extremely important to know the signs and symptoms of any illness, including possible mental illness conditions. This is why parents need to pay careful attention to their children's behaviour, how they interact with people around them and the surrounding environment.

It is important to do thorough research to know what to look out for and consult your nearest health facility should you suspect that your child may exhibit any or all of the signs. Mayo Clinic lists warning signs of mental illness in children:

  • Sadness that lasts two or more weeks.
  • Changes in being social or staying away from others.
  • Hurting oneself or talking about hurting oneself.
  • Talking about death or suicide.
  • Having outbursts or being very moody or testy.
  • Out-of-control behaviour that can be harmful.
  • Big changes in mood, behaviour or personality.
  • Changes in eating habits.
  • Loss of weight.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Getting headaches or stomach aches often.
  • Trouble concentrating.
  • Doing poorly in school.
  • Not going to school.

Symptoms of mental disorders change over time as a child grows, and may include difficulties with how a child plays, learns, speaks, and acts, or how the child handles their emotions. Symptoms often start in early childhood, although some disorders may develop during the teenage years. The diagnosis is often made in the school years and sometimes earlier; however, some children with a mental disorder may not be recognised or diagnosed as having one.

Families of children with mental health conditions need to create a supportive environment which enables the child to feel comfortable and free in their surroundings. Apart from adhering to treatment and specific therapies, tips to create a supportive environment include:

  • Spending time with your children doing enjoyable activities
  • maintaining routines as much as possible – such as bed time and meal times
  • regularly asking your child how they are
  • acknowledging and respecting your child's feelings
  • listening to your child's concerns
  • speaking with your child's school or childcare centre
  • encouraging your child's strengths.

This Mental Illness Awareness month, let's all take initiative in educating one another about mental illness and stand together in fighting stigma. For more information, visit:







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